While getting ready to submit to our 2016 Poetry Prize judged by Camille Rankine, read our interview with Caitlin Scarano, the 2015 Poetry Prize winner selected by Eduardo C. Corral. Here, Scarano discusses her inspiration for her winning poem “Between the Bloodhounds and My Shrinking Mouth,” collections that move her, and her best tips for contest submitters.
Caitlin Scarano is a poet in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee PhD creative writing program. She was a finalist for the 2014 Best of the Net Anthology. She has two poetry chapbooks. Her recent work can be found or is forthcoming in Granta, Ninth Letter, and Colorado Review. This winter, she will be an artist in residence at the Hinge Arts Residency program in Fergus Falls and the Artsmith’s 2016 Artist Residency on Orcas Island.
What was your inspiration for “Between the Bloodhounds and my Shrinking Mouth?”
I began this poem with a sound from my childhood — the snapping of an electric wire horse fence. For some reason, I made an associate leap in the poem from the snapping sounds of the fence to the sound of a clicking tongue. This image comes up again a few lines down in “the licking hour,” which is a play on the idea of “the witching hour.” Though this poem began abstractly, I discovered the narrative backbone when I wrote, “As a child, you don’t ask / yourself why you are hiding, / you just hide.” I was struck by the implication of that line: the sharp, almost animal instinct we possess as children, especially in the face of abuse. Here I hit my stride and knew which direction the poem wanted to go — to contemplate a specific memory from the speaker’s childhood that occurred in the English hunt themed den of her grandparent’s house.
Danger and artifice seems to be a curiosity throughout this poem, as it opens with the lines, “There is artificial grass on the other side of this / electric fence, / her clicking tongue.” Could you talk about how these elements function in the visceral world of this poem?
I am interested in artifice as the illusion we construct about a thing before it is fully known, and, also, the way we construct our personas and our histories. In this instance, the poem is invested in the tension between the simultaneous desire for authenticity and artifice humans often experience. We want to know each other and our own selves in these intense, intimate ways, but we also don’t want to sacrifice the possibilities and pleasures that come with beginnings and the excitement of not knowing.
At times, we can feel very defined and confined by things that have happened to us, those “specific stories” from our pasts. Here, again, another kind of artifice — the significance that we assign to past experiences. We can never be defined by just one story, mistake, or trait. In regards to danger, specifically the threat of sexual abuse, this poem doesn’t advocate for repression, fixation, or even transcendence. The speaker wants to acknowledge, be acknowledged, and continue to live a multivalent life. I didn’t want to write a victim poem about childhood trauma. I wanted to grapple with the strange stains of memory, how formative experiences from that time can be crystalline yet surreal and slippery, like a car radio going in and out. Sometimes we can catch only fragments and bits, and have to fill in the rest to the best of our ability. Other times, we become the thing we’re trying to escape. Another theme of the poem is how when we experience abuse or trauma at a young age, we often reenact that trauma on some (perceived) weaker thing. Violence begets violence — after she is on the receiving end, the speaker turns on her own body by pinching her stomach, and her little sister by biting her face.
What was your process putting together your submission for the 2015 Poetry Prize? Any tips for future contest submitters?
This might sound obvious, but submit not just your best work, but work you are most excited about. Submit new work that has energy. But be selective. There was a time when I submitted to any and every contest I could find. That isn’t financially sustainable, as we all know. Researching the contest judge doesn’t hurt. I knew Eduardo Corral’s work. I felt a connection to his poetry, especially what he does with animals, bodies, and the surreal. Research the community you want to be a part of — you should attempt to identify Indiana Review’s aesthetic and its values. Think about the larger conversation that might emerge out of your work and what that means. I think that poems that win these sort of contests are imbued with exigency — why is this important? Why now?
Is there something you’ll never tire of writing about? Why?
I never want my work to be defined by narrow subject matter. I’d rather it be known for its energy, its hunger, and strangeness. I want my writing to always be working toward new territory, and to always have an impulse for ambiguity. I try not to plan what I write or limit myself. Still, as poets I think we return to certain themes, motifs, and issues (sometimes these are lifelong obsessions). I never tire of strange, powerful animal imagery and animal metaphor, in my poetry and the poetry of others. I think animals factor into just about every one of my poems. I’ve grown to think of my poetry (collectively) as a bestiary — an indexing, a mythologizing.
Since I lived in Alaska, I’ve been fascinated (academically and poetically) with the idea of wilderness, and wilderness as a human construct. William Cronon has a powerful 1995 article on this entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Writing about animals is a risk though, because I want to avoid clichés or preciousness. Like kind of writing, it comes with its own set of ethical challenges. When I use animals in my writing, I don’t want to simply anthropomorphize, or demonize, or romanticize them; there is so much complexity, power, and ambiguity in nature without having to project ourselves onto it. I think the imagery of the skull joints in the snake and the neighbor’s bloodhounds are two of the most powerful moments in that poem. I’m also often aesthetically intrigued by the aspects of childhood that our culture doesn’t often acknowledge — children as grotesque, and primal and socially strange (eating scabs, washing their hair once a week, that sort of thing).
What are some poetry collections you find yourself returning to over and over again? What do you read when you find yourself stuck? What other methods help you in your writing process?
To get in the poetic mood, I’ve been listening to the audio recordings on Linebreak.org. If I am really stuck, turning to any page in Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey always inspires me. Right now, I’m most moved by the work of some of the poets I’m currently studying with at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Siwar Masannat has an amazing new book, 50 Water Dreams and I love C. McAllister Williams’s chapbook Neon Augury. Also, check out the the poetry of Tobias Wray, Franklin K.R. Cline, Peter Burzynski, Lindsay Daigle, and Soham Patel.